Everything you never wanted to know about Dutch toilets
Expat blogger Tiffany Jarman Jansen exposes the weird world of Dutch toilets, from the pay-to-pee phenomenon to the good (or bad) old inspection shelf.
You're in a new country and just getting acclimated to the language, the culture and your new surroundings. Then, without warning, you realise that you've gotta go. Whether you're at home, in public or someone's guest, you can only cross your legs and squeeze for so long.
It seems simple enough: go to the nearest toilet, do your thing and leave (after washing your hands, of course). However, if you've had the pleasure of living or spending time in the Netherlands, you'll know that nothing here comes easily!
A league of their own
The Dutch bathroom is the smallest room known to man. I'm talking the kind of size that would make an elf claustrophobic! There is barely, just barely, room enough to turn around and sit down. But before you awkwardly try to find a way to comfortably seat yourself, take a look at your surroundings; this will not take long. You will observe the four things unique to Dutch toilets ( and if you are planning to take the Samen Woonen test as part of your inburgering, you will need to know this):
- The lack of windows or any other form of ventilation;
- An air freshener in the toilet to compensate (You will more than likely find spray air freshener in addition to the one in the toilet bowl, just in case.);
- The omnipresent birthday calendar (Why not put birthday reminders in the room you undoubtedly spend the most time in? Just make sure you include everyone: the Dutch have been known to go to the bathroom for the sole purpose of making sure their natal day is included in your calendar);
- The inspection shelf (More on this later).
The (in)famous Dutch toilet birthday calendar
The Dutch believe that it is good to have options and that ideal even applies to ways to flush after using the loo. There's the chain, rope or string; the button on the top or side of the toilet; the push panel on the wall behind the toilet (one for flushing down No. 1 and one for flushing down No. 2) and the foot pedal. And those are just the most frequent. Even the tanks get fancy: some above the toilet, others behind and the occasional hidden tank.
Where's the potty?
Believe it or not, there is such a thing in the Netherlands as the Dutch Toilet Organisation (DTO). The DTO has two main goals: to provide more accessible public toilets in the Netherlands and to make clean toilets available to third world countries. For the sake of staying on topic, let's just focus here on number one. The DTO generously promises to fund inspections on existing public WCs and to provide a soapbox for policy makers, manufacturers, marketers, individuals and "other interested parties".
These intentions are most definitely in the right place. With every person visiting the restroom an average of five times a day , according to DTO founder and Delft University of Technology associate professor Dr Johan F. M. Molenbroek, the need for more public restrooms is very real.
As it stands, many of the few public restrooms in the Netherlands are of the infamous pay-to-pee variety. In my experience living in Utrecht, I have found very few restrooms for which this is the case. But in her August 2007 article ‘A Dutch Inconvenience’, nine-year expat and published author Amanda van Mulligan lists shopping centres, department stores, service stations and bars as culprits in charging for Nature's call.
Typically, such places charge 25 euro cents for the privilege, which you are expected to pay to the toiletjuffvrouw before using the facilities. Sometimes, the fees are higher. (I've only seen up to a 50 cent charge, but have heard of places that actually expect you to pay a EUR 1 entry fee.)
The state of restrooms, however, will lead one to question where this money is going, since it is clearly not going towards cleanliness or keeping materials such as toilet paper, paper towels or soap in stock. Yet things are looking up, according to a survey done by Service Management: results showed a nine percent increase in the number of toilets that can be classified as clean between 2006 and 2007. For the cleanest potties, head for the hospital.
For the brave, there are other options that don't involve a fee. Public urinals are popular in Holland, especially during festivals, parades and fairs. The odd, hulking, four-sided booth-like plastic structures contain a small urinal—one for each of the four compartments—placed at just the right height. If you like your privacy, however, this is definitely not for you as there is nothing to shield you from passers-by.
At this point you're probably thinking how wildly unfair it is that men have this option (should they be brave enough), while women do not. That is not quite true. Thanks to Dutch inventor Moon Zijp, ladies are now also able to make use of public urinals or wherever else they chose, for that matter. The device that makes it all possible is called P-Mate (Plastuit in Dutch) or, more appropriately, the She-Pee as they are referred to in the UK. This cardboard funnel-like contraption allows women to wee while standing up without revealing anything.
Now what's the shelf thing all about?
The most shocking thing for many an expat upon their first trip to a WC in Holland is what is commonly known as the ‘inspection shelf’. Thanks to Dutch toilet design, you are given the opportunity to examine your fecal matter before sending it on its way to the sewer. While it is an appalling idea, it is also a practical one. Many diseases and health issues can be detected by examining stool samples. Just as we determine if we are drinking enough water by looking at the colour of our urine, we can see other diet needs and surpluses by taking a peek at our excrement.
The system of having a flat surface in the toilet bowl comes from the Germans. In France toilets have more of a triangle shape, enabling feces to plop right to the bottom of the bowl and immediately out of sight. American toilets have the same idea, but contain a higher level of water so that the excrement floats to the top. In his lecture on toilets and ideology, philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who specialises in ideology and materialism, points out that each society seems to have their own system and each feels that their system is the best.
The flachspeuler (German for ‘flat-flusher’, i.e., the shelf design) may not be the most pleasant of toilet models, but it does have its advantages. Besides the opportunity to do a health check on your latest sample, these toilets save you from being splashed with toilet water with each deposit, and the design and flushing system save water.
The biggest problem with the shelf design? Once you're ready to say ‘Tot ziensI’ to your latest triumph, it’s not always so quick to leave. If you do succeed in getting everything off the shelf and down the hole in one flush, odds are high that traces will be left behind. To avoid having to clean up after yourself with a toilet brush or, gods forbid, your bare hands, try making a soft bedding of toilet paper for your stool to land on. The toilet paper will act as a raft and carry everything away without a trace.
Tiffany Jarman Jansen writes children’s books for Medieval Maidens and contributes to publications such as 2BDutch, Expatica, Expat Exchange, and various other websites and newsletters. Originally from Maryland, she now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and their dog. Read more about Tiffany and her experiences as an expat in the Netherlands at Clogs and Tulips: An American in Holland.
Photo credit: AIGA symbol signs collection (toilet sign).